It could surprise many of us who feed on this perennial frenzy called cricket to know that Sri Lanka treats its cricket and cricketers pretty normally. Superstars Murali and Malinga will stare at you from the nearest hoarding but don’t be too shocked if one of them brushes past you at the chic Odel showroom without glassy-eyed autograph hunters stalking them. (In fact, during an unfortunate encounter at a pub once, I was the only one to repeatedly get in the way of Jayasuriya and a glass of whisky in his left hand.)
Cricket finds place only on the sports pages. On page one, it’s mostly political news. Lanka’s thumping win over England last week and its loss to Pakistan earlier was sports page news. In my 35 months here, I’ve never seen single a page one lead story on cricket. Remember, the Lankans did win a few memorable victories in the last three years. Contrast that with how we treat the game and its stars; it will be as stark as black and white.
Many write-ups played down the victory over England, saying it was a facile win over a weak side. ``Sri Lanka’s performance against England can in no way be taken as champion stuff. The pitch would have been to their liking but the bowling they faced was mere schoolboy stuff,’’ said the Daily Mirror editorial on Tuesday.
Make no mistake, cricket is hugely popular here and rugby is the only sporting rival. The WC buzz is everywhere in Colombo. Many locals are certain Lanka is reaching Wankhede. Neighbourhood tuk-tuk (three-wheeler) drivers praised the Indian cricket team and said Lanka will make mincemeat of them in the final. Giant screens are up in restaurants and pubs. The size of the cutouts of Murali, Sanga, Mahela and Malinga’s at some of the roundabouts could easily rival President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s during elections.
After the 1996 victory, newspapers splashed it all over without any inhibition. During the 2007 losing final, the LTTE carried out the first air attack and made it to the headlines. If the home team wins this time, there will sparks of a different kind over the Colombo sky. And I bet they will be on page one too.